Avoiding Electrical Water Hazards

| Jim Lanz

Electrical Water Hazards

Stay Cool and Safe this Summer

For many of us, the summer months mean spending time with friends and family, out on the lake or swimming in the pool. Water activities are fun but can turn dangerous quickly. With the 4th of July holiday weekend just around the corner, take a moment to familiarize yourself with electrical water hazards and the precautions you can take to avoid them.

Understanding Electric Shock Drowning

There are numerous electrical water hazards in swimming pools and hot tubs, around marinas and launch ramps, and on boats and the waters surrounding them. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has reports of 14 deaths related to electrocutions in swimming pools from 2003 to 2014.

Electric shock drowning (ESD) can occur when faulty wiring sends an electrical current into the water. Docks or boats can leak electricity into the water causing water electrification. The water molecules themselves do not conduct electricity, but the ions within the water carry the moving electrons throughout the water. These moving electrons create electrified water through a process called water electrification. There is no visible warning to electrified water. When the human body makes contact with the energized water, it becomes the conductor of electricity. The current passes through the body and causes paralysis, a loss of muscle control that results in drowning. As little as 10 milliamps, 1/50th the amount used by a 60 watt light bulb, can cause paralysis and drowning.

There are several signs of electrical shock. Swimmers may feel a tingling sensation, muscle cramps, and they may not be able to move. It may feel as if something is holding them in place. Be aware when skin or surrounding surfaces are wet, such as the grass or pool deck. Wet skin and wet surfaces can greatly increase the chance of electrocution when electricity is present.

What to Do if Someone in the Water is Being Shocked?

  1. Turn off all power
  2. Throw a life ring or other rescue hook that doesn’t conduct electricity
  3. Call 911 
  4. NEVER enter the water you could become a victim, too
  5. If you think you are being shocked, move away from the source of the shock and get out
  6. Tips for Avoiding Electrical Water Hazards


Tips for Swimmers

  • Never swim near a marina, dock or boatyard, or near a boat while it’s running
  • Obey all “No Swimming” signs on docks

Tips for Boat Owners

  • Avoid entering the water when launching or loading your boat
  • Each year have the boat’s electrical system inspected and upgraded by a qualified marine electrician to be sure it meets the required codes of your area
  • Know where your main breaker(s) are located on both the boat and the shore power source so you can respond quickly in case of an emergency
  • Have ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCI) installed on your boat
    • Use only portable GFCIs or shore power cords (including “Y” adapters) that are “UL-Marine Listed” when using electricity near water
  • Do not allow swimming in or around your marina
  • Post signs prohibiting swimming to help prevent an electric shock drowning incident


Tips for Swimmers

  • Look out for underwater lights that are not working properly, flicker or work intermittently
  • If tingling occurs, immediately stop swimming in your current direction
  • Exit the water as quickly as possible and avoid using metal ladders or rails
  • Do not swim before, during or after thunderstorms
  • Avoid handling electrical devices when you are wet

Tips for Pool Owners

  • Have a qualified electrician periodically inspect and replace /upgrade the electrical devices or equipment that keep your pool or hot tub electrically safe
    • Have them show you how to turn off all power in case of an emergency
  • Make sure any overhead lines maintain the proper distance over a pool and other structures, such as a diving board
  • If you are putting in a new pool or hot tub be sure the wiring is performed by an electrician experienced in the special safety requirements for these types of installations
  • Electrical appliances, equipment, and cords should be kept at least 6 feet away from the water
    • When possible, use battery-operated appliances and equipment instead of cord operated (televisions, radios, and stereos)
  • Make sure outdoor receptacles have covers that keep them dry even when appliances are plugged into them

If you have any questions about electrical water hazards, contact a Safety Specialist.

Safety Workbook

*Source: National Fire Protection Association (1) Electrical safety around water article and (2) ESFI ESD Infographic